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Special Interview ‘americanizing the Holocaust’ Worries Israelis Doing Holocaust Research

Israelis involved with Holocaust research are becoming concerned about the current tendency to go too far with “Americanizing the Holocaust” — making it accessible to the American experience — by “packaging” it within a list of familiar evils, thus robbing it of its uniqueness in human history.

Characteristic of “going too far” in “Americanizing the Holocaust” are statements such as “the Holocaust shows what prejudice, discrimination and intolerance can lead to” and “the Holocaust is part of the long history of man’s inhumanity to man,” which make it possible to avoid confronting its quintessential difference and the basic questions it raises.

This view was expressed by Yitzhak Mais, director of Yad Vashem’s Museum, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency here. American-born Mais, who has been involved with Holocaust studies since his aliya in 1973, recently visited the U.S. where he served as a consultant to the United Jewish Appeal on its Auschwitz exhibit, now being shown in Los Angeles and is touring the country.

To Mais, the uniqueness of the Holocaust lies in “the singling out of Jews to be killed because they were considered racially dangerous.” The Nazi policy of wiping out all the people of one group without exception — “just because they existed they had to be killed” — is what makes it significant and fundamentally different from the many other inhumane events in world history, he said.

The Holocaust, Mais continued, needs to be presented both as a uniquely Jewish event and as one having universal significance. Making it accessible and relevant to the American reality is valid. If it is inaccessible, “one can’t learn from it — it remains in an archive. If it’s placed on some inapproachable metaphysical pedestal” the questions it raises as an event that happened on this earth cannot be confronted.

AUTHENTIC AND UNAUTHENTIC APPROACHES

However, Mais said, there are authentic and unauthentic ways of making the Holocaust accessible. An authentic way of “Americanizing the Holocaust” is to deal with the American participation in the event: showing the role of American liberators, bringing in the experience of survivors, discussing what the U.S. government did and did not do.

Unauthentic ways in which “Americanization of the Holocaust” is carried too far involve placing it on a list of the horrors of human experience. “If you don’t acknowledge the Holocaust’s uniqueness as the watershed event in history that it is, you are dealing with it and avoiding it at the same time,” he said.

Avoiding the Holocaust eliminates the necessity to confront the philosophical assumptions it calls into question such as the inherent goodness of people, the belief in progress, the value of education in forming good character, and the superiority of Western civilization.

Early post-war ways of avoiding the Holocaust involved seeing it as an aberration, an idea that still exists in the popular mind, said Mais Statements such as “the Nazis were insane” and “Germans were brainwashed” allowed people to “pay lip service to the Holocaust but to avoid confronting the basic fact that good husbands and good fathers carried it out.”

The Eichmann Trial of 1961, after which Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil,” gave impetus to serious historical research. But it was the period of the late 1960’s that saw a real change in the Holocaust consciousness of American Jews.

“This was a time of ethnic pride and one when questioning and protest were accepted,” Mais said. Feeling permission to question the establishment on civil rights and Vietnam, American Jews came to feel they could also question the establishment about the Holocaust. The Six-Day War of 1967, replete as it was with Holocaust analogies, was also an important factor.

FACTORS IN HOLOCAUST CONSCIOUSNESS

But what finally got the Holocaust into American consciousness, he said, was the miniseries of that name which aired on U.S. television in 1978. Even with all its problems, 220 million Americans “came to terms with the word Holocaust.”

Because it would not have been aired had receptivity not been anticipated, the series was an important “signpost,” he said.

While Israelis had long hoped the Holocaust would penetrate American consciousness, they are concerned about its being trivialized and misused. “We can’t be blind to the Holocaust or be blinded by it,” Mais said. One instance of being blinded by it occurs when people say, “You have to be Jewish because of what the Nazis did to the Jews.” Here everything is “seen through the prism of the Holocaust and it is overemphasized to the point of becoming a surrogate Jewish identity or religion.”

Another instance of being “blinded” by the Holocaust occurs when people say, “Israel has the right to exist because of the Holocaust.” This “obliterates Zionism and its tangible expression,” ignoring the fact that Jews have a right to their own country and worked for it in the 1890’s, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he told JTA.

ZIONISM PRECEDED THE HOLOCAUST

Using the Holocaust to legitimize Israel makes Zionism appear to be a post-Holocaust response and phenomenon, “and if so, where did the infrastructure that allowed the survivors to be absorbed come from?” It is also ideologically dangerous, Mais continued, because Arab propagandists can and do argue that “Europe spit the Jews up and we have to pay the bill.”

However, he said, there is a direct historical connection between the Holocaust ending in 1945 and Israel’s creation in 1948 in that the need for a refuge for 300,000 DP’s the world would not accept eventually led to the UN partition vote of 1947.

Furthermore, “one cannot understand Israel without understanding the Holocaust,” Mais said. “It’s part of our collective memory.” Israelis share the consensus that Jews cannot afford to be in a situation of “hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness” and that “there’s only one country in the world that puts Jewish survival as its number one priority.”

This is reinforced, said Mais, when you walk out of Yad Vashem. “You walk out of the building, out of the darkness, and you see the sun. You see Israeli soldiers and you walk into the sunlight of Jerusalem.”

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